Solitary confinement should be abolished throughout Canada, a group that represents prisoners in British Columbia says in a new report that comes as Ontario’s treatment of segregated inmates is drawing widespread public backlash.
The West Coast Prison Justice Society has issued a report that calls on correctional officials to “end the practice of solitary confinement entirely, rather than merely placing limits on its use where it is considered to have crossed the line of torture or cruel treatment.”
The 112-page report, a copy of which was provided to The Globe and Mail ahead of its formal release later this week, features stories from several prisoners on the harmful effects of solitary – a man who tried to hang himself, a woman who would self-mutilate and others who describe lasting issues with anxiety and depression.
The Globe has written extensively on the use of solitary confinement in Canada, including the 2010 death of Eddie Snowshoe after 162 consecutive days in segregation, and the more recent plight of Adam Capay, who was isolated in an acrylic glass-lined cell for more than four years without trial. The United Nations has said more than 15 days in solitary confinement constitutes torture.
More than 60,000 people signed petitions calling for Mr. Capay’s release from segregation as part of a public outcry. The Ontario government has launched a 25-member team to examine conditions in segregation cells across the province and the Corrections Minister says he has appealed for more funding to respond.
The Prison Justice Society acknowledged provincial and federal correctional officials have taken some steps to limit the use of solitary confinement over the years, but its clients continue to be held in long-term isolation and in conditions that “violate basic standards of human dignity.”
“In our view, any scheme that continues to allow for the solitary confinement of prisoners for any amount of time would allow such abuses to continue,” the report said.
Jennifer Metcalfe, a lawyer and executive director of the society’s Prisoners’ Legal Services clinic, said it has received 728 calls from federal prisoners requesting assistance with their segregation placement since Jan. 1, 2012. It has received 424 calls from provincial inmates over that same time period.
Ms. Metcalfe said in an interview the report was intended to offer a blueprint on how to move away from the use of solitary. It recommended, among other things, the definition of prisoners with mental-health needs be broadened, and more mental-health units be developed.
If solitary confinement is not abolished, the report said correctional administrators should be required to report all segregation placements to external oversight bodies.
“We’ve asked for an abolition of solitary confinement, in hopes they will eventually get rid of those regimes. But in the meantime, we need to ensure that there’s enough procedural fairness in those regimes,” Ms. Metcalfe said.
Correctional Service Canada and B.C. Corrections would not directly answer when asked about abolishing the use of solitary.
Correctional Service Canada said in a statement “a number of safeguards are in place to ensure that all placements in segregation are reviewed on an ongoing basis and all alternatives to segregation are considered for all offenders.”
The statement said Correctional Service Canada “continues to discuss and examine its policy framework and operations in regards to administrative segregation.”
B.C. Corrections made a similar statement, writing that it is “currently examining its use of segregation and looking at alternative ways to manage inmates with significant mental health needs or behavioural issues.”
Jason Godin, national president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, which represents 7,400 correctional officers at federal institutions across the country, said in an interview abolishing the use of segregation would be “absurd.”
“Calling for the abolishment of segregation would be taking tools away from the Correctional Service of Canada, including correctional officers. It could make it very, very dangerous for us,” he said.
“We use solitary confinement for all kinds of reasons. Obviously, there’s disciplinary reasons. There’s safety and security of the institution, there’s other reasons where inmates may be assaulting another inmate, or assaulting staff members.”
The report said there has been a reduction in the use of solitary at federal institutions of late, but the society has not been able to obtain meaningful recent data from B.C. Corrections. The report said the society is concerned the use of solitary confinement in British Columbia is high.
B.C. Corrections in its statement that in 2015-16, about 5 per cent of its daily inmate count involved individuals housed in segregation. It said one individual was held in segregation for more than 125 days, but did not provide further details.
One of the society’s clients quoted in the report said he was at a federal institution in 2014 when he was accused of plotting assaults against other inmates. He denied the allegations but was sent to a segregation cell. The man, who had a history of suicide attempts, hanged himself six days later. He was found unresponsive in his cell but ultimately survived.
A woman who was in the provincial jail system told the society she had severe anxiety whenever she was placed in segregation. She said she would harm herself when isolated.
“Time seemed like it was endless. I couldn’t handle being locked in there. It was driving me insane. I would self-mutilate – if I had anything sharp, I would cut my wrist. I would do anything to get them to open the door, so I could lose that trapped, panicked, claustrophobic feeling,” she said.Report Typo/Error